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Restaurant Cañete: Fun Fine Dining in Barcelona

cañeteTo find Bar Cañete, head down a bleak street branching off the Ramblas of Barcelona into the heart of the lower Raval. Among Russian import markets, used cell phone stores and corner groceries, Bar Cañete and Cañete Mantel (the fine dining side of the same kitchen) stand strong as bright spots for people in search of excellent, honest food and a convivial atmosphere in these less-than-vibrant economic times. On a personal note, it was the ‘historic’ location of my first fine dining experience upon moving to Barcelona, and since then, it has only continued to impress. A meal at Cañete is lively, entertaining, and—most importantly—satisfying in the way dinner at the countryside farmhouse of a retired three-star chef would be if you were ever lucky enough to be invited.

Head Chef Josep Mª Mató grew up around his aunt’s kitchen in the mountainous Spanish town of Cerdaña along the border of France, and he uses the lively, bright space of Bar Cañete to serve the dishes of his Catalan childhood with a refined delivery. A definite French vein runs through the foundation of his Catalan repertoire, but Mr. Mató’s polished, fast-paced open kitchen serves a refreshing variety of undisguised, yet modern, comforts. Classics of the North like braised rabbit and boar, sautéed monk fish with wild mushrooms, and pork with sea urchin are balanced by familiar dishes of the South—salmorejo (a thick soup similar to gazpacho), fried anchovies, braised beef sandwiches (mollete de pringá), and stuffed, fried pork loin (flamenquín). In contrast, Cañete Mantel (tablecloth) next door exudes restraint, delicacy, and tranquility (and carries a much heftier price tag to match).

Bar CaneteAs I think back on my most recent meal at Bar Cañete, the multiple courses, rich flavors, comforting scents, and wine-induced highs all get condensed into a single, perfectly simple declaration: “I loved my meal!”

We sat at the kitchen bar (my usual preference), and watched the playful waiters do their dance across the kitchen as the sous chef commanded his young brigade with a hushed voice and measured assertiveness. Having worked in my fair share of professional kitchens, I’d argue that no quality is quite as impressive in a cook as the precise, controlled motion with which he executes the practiced movements required to yield greatness from raw product; harnessing heat and using intuition to issue it forth, from steel to seasoned meat, searing and hissing violently until the moment when the poke of a finger senses the dish is perfectly done.

However, by then, the cook’s mind has already run ahead to the plates, and the sauce, and the ten dishes that the chef is calling out in tight staccato over the sounds of the dishwasher, and of the merry diners toasting to each other’s health and the food which has brought them together. Also, nothing impresses like a pristine workstation, and as the shining expanses of polished stainless steel across the open kitchen can attest, professionalism at Cañete—if admittedly of the relaxed Spanish variety—is thoughtful and thorough without pomp or pretension.

Upon arrival, I already had some ideas about what to order, having been recently recommended several dishes by a chef friend. The pan con tomate at Cañete is obligatory, and the fresh, house-made burrata—presented with a bowl of sea salt and a bottle of delicate extra-virgin olive oil—was velvety and creamy, elegantly calming the bitter escarole salad and quietly contrasting the crisp Brut Cava with which we began our meal.

Bar CaneteA tortilla de camarones is not the tortilla española that many Spanish food-lovers may already know. There are no eggs nor potatoes in this simple snack, just a loose batter of wheat flour, chickpea flour, cold water, scallions, and tiny baby shrimp as long as a fingernail. The batter is pan-fried and served hot and golden, a specialty of the ancient Andalusian city of Cádiz. When ordered, waiters bring a large fritter for each person, though with the food to come I would have preferred just one to share, as it was a bit oily and filling (though completely delicious and quite true to those I ate during my summer travels in the south).

Our food was delivered at a measured rate, timed at first by the kitchen to overlap slightly, but eventually shifting appropriately to leave room between more substantial plates before proceeding to the next. New plates, new wine glasses, and new flatware were placed with care after each course, though not with breathless sanctity but with a relaxed efficiency and a pleasant energy that continued throughout the meal.

After the “Chinese bread”; a steamed bun stuffed with meltingly-soft braised pork jowl and truffled sweet onions (served in a paper packet like street food, something that is sadly non-existent in Barcelona), a steaming, earthy soup of garlic and trumpet of death mushrooms arrived, nearly black and unctuously rustic, crowned with a slow-cooked egg and studded with fried bread and crisp garlic shavings. The textural consistency to the soup was on point, as was the delicate balance of salt; the meaty mushroom flavor standing out assertively but with polished restraint.

Finally, the largest plate of the evening arrived, a glistening heap of sautéed veal sweetbreads, supple shrimp and fresh, seasonal artichoke hearts in a nearly-too-rich glaze of decadent veal stock and port wine. Upon first bite, the unmistakable ‘bone’ flavor of veal demi-glaze was wholly overpowering, threatening to push a splendid dinner over the edge right before the finish line. However, thankfully, with an excellent glass of Atteca 2011 Old Vines and a taste of all of the dish’s components in one bite, the harmony that the chef intended began to emerge.

Bar CaneteAtteca 2011 Old Vines is a juicy, round, elegantly oaked 100% garnacha from Spain’s wine region of Calatayud, near the northeastern city of Zaragoza. The fresh-red-fruit palate and aromas of chocolate, old leather, and slate paired marvelously with the rich sauce and the bright, sweet drizzle of Port wine reduction that danced around the rim of the shallow bowl. The balance of acidity and restrained tannins made for an especially drinkable wine that was lifted subtly to another level by the complex trio of pasture, garden, and sea.

Though I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, an extravagant meal offers the perfect excuse for that final little indulgence. Despite the tarte tatin on the menu (a blatantly French dish and one of my all-time favorites) we made an excellent choice with the bastón of dense, rich, bittersweet, Cuban chocolate ganache with sea salt, and a boozy babá sponge cake soaked in rum, topped with a tuft of fresh whipped cream.

In typical fashion, shots of orujo de hierbas came as a surprise gift from the kitchen, a powerful digestivo of herbal liqueur from Galicia, not dissimilar to the Italian hair-raiser grappa. Two shots, followed by two tiny cups of strong, well-pulled espresso, and we bid the staff goodbye, leaving them to finish breaking down the kitchen as we slowly slid from our high stools, grins affixed to rosy faces, and stepped out onto the cool street, the clock striking midnight.

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Bar Cañete
Address: Carrer de la Unió, 17,
08001 Barcelona, Spain
+34 932 70 34 58